A group of perhaps a dozen men in masks or with soot-blackened faces wander the streets of a rural Czech village, cracking whips and pounding on doors. Attired in flowered hats, ruffled lace collars and outlandish costumes of straw, rags and Crayola-coloured suits bedecked in bows, they're a bit like the characters from The Wizard of Oz … if L. Frank Baum had been bombed out of his mind on absinthe when he wrote the kiddie classic.
I'm not sure I'd open my door to these folks, but invariably, the residents of tiny Vortova do. That's the cue for the men to break into song and dance, accompanied by a brass band. As a reward for their efforts, homeowners hand out shots of liqueur, sugar-dusted buns and platters of meat, not only to the performers, but also to their hangers-on, who seem to make up pretty much the entire town. Every spectator receives a swath of black stripes across their cheeks, chins and foreheads – a sign that they've been accepted into the entertainers' raucous ranks.
I'm here because I want to experience life in some of the Czech Republic's smaller cities and towns on a tour that will eventually lead to the lesser-known attractions of Prague's well-trodden streets. But it's going to be hard to exceed the outrageous revelry of this afternoon, celebrating the centuries-old tradition of masopust.
Held just before the start of Lent, masopust translates as "goodbye meat." In Vortova and some surrounding towns, this Shrovetide procession is considered so important that it's featured on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
I'm riveted by the mental image of straight-laced UNESCO officials stripping off their striped neckties and letting it rip at masopust, which is essentially Mardi Gras meets Halloween, with a decidedly adult tone. Although all ages take part, there's a lot of tackling lasses on top of snowbanks, prodding them with sticks and treating them to "medical" checkups involving bawdy props that are decidedly not your standard-issue physician's kit.
Supposedly, these strange rites are all about fertility and ensuring a good harvest, while the black face paint is apparently a nod to chimney sweeps clearing away the dreary dregs of winter. By the look of things, I reckon a lot of ladies will be getting their chimneys swept tonight.
Moving on from the louche temptations of masopust, I find more tangible heritage and enticements in Brno. The Czech Republic's second-largest city after Prague has close to 400,000 residents, and an additional 86,000 students. Given its preponderance of pubs and inexpensive beer, it's little wonder that a survey of students recently rated Brno as the fourth-best university city in the world, with Prague claiming the No. 2 spot. Here, I also learn the social custom of "na stojaka" – to drink standing up – basically the Czech equivalent of "a swift one down the pub."
But Brno's appeal goes beyond booze.
It's a baroque beauty, where ornate buildings in sherbet shades keep company with eye-catching modern artworks displayed in city squares. From atop the tower at 13 th-century Spilberk Castle, I take in the whole panorama, my gaze stretching as far as distant, Lego-like communist apartment blocks abutting a low rise of hills across the plain.
As attractive as Brno is above ground, I'm even more intrigued by its subterranean secrets. I venture into the castle's dank dungeons, where up to 2,000 prisoners at a time were packed into squalid brick and stone caverns, and 10-Z, a former nuclear-bomb shelter that now operates as a museum and hostel, where you can actually spend the night.
I can hardly imagine a creepier setting in which to slumber … until I tour Brno's ossuary. Beneath St. James Church, centuries-old skeletal remains fill three vaulted rooms, which are open to the public, and mysterious, off-limits passages beyond.
Leaving the bones behind, I continue to Olomouc, another renowned baroque university city.
Located about an hour northeast of Brno, it's home to 100,000 residents and 25,000 students, who lend the place a hip, youthful vibe.
"This is our Oxford," explains my guide, Stefan Blaho. "It's smaller, calmer and not so spoiled by tourism. If you go to bars and discos, you'll find more students and locals [than tourists]."
You'll also find plenty of cheese – and I'm not referring to bad pickup lines in the pubs. Olomouc is famous for its soft, pungent tvaruzky cheese, which you can sample in virtually all its shapes and forms at the Tvaruzky Cheese Pastry Shop. There's also an annual tvaruzky cheese festival, scheduled for April 28-29 this year, and a cheese museum about 20 minutes outside town. I even spot a cheese vending machine in the Town Hall, which also features the world's only communist astronomical clock, depicting workers and scientists instead of angels and saints, and a tower affording unparalleled views of the city.
If you need a walk to work off your lactose overload, stroll through the university district, with its shops, bars and elaborate fountains, toward St. Wenceslas Cathedral and the Archdiocesan Museum.
"Czech" out the gem-encrusted bling in the museum's treasure room and the equally ornate archbishop's carriage. A music collection includes original scores by Beethoven and Mozart, who lived here while completing his sixth symphony (at the age of 11).
When I finally arrive in Prague, I wonder … will I have been spoiled by the uncrowded streets of the Czech Republic's lesser-known destinations? Will there be anything new to discover?
Oh, me of little faith. I am charmed as ever by Old Town Square, where a Dixieland jazz band entertains tourists who have come to admire the fairy-tale spires of Tyn Church and see the medieval astronomical clock, from which statues of the Apostles emerge every hour. The saintly statues lining iconic Charles Bridge are as reassuringly sombre as ever, and the sprawling bulk of Prague Castle presides over it all from a hilltop perch above the Vltava River.
These are the sites I feel compelled to visit each time I return, but I'm keen to burrow deeper beneath this city's skin. The Prague Unknown Tour, guided by history student Daniel Verner, fits the bill.
Verner ushers my friends and me through Novy Svet, a cobblestone street that may not be paved with gold, but is flanked by "golden" houses. He reveals that American Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who briefly resided at the House of the Golden Lamb in the sixties, was expelled by the secret police for "spoiling the youth" with his liberal ideas, and we hear about a grisly murder committed by a former resident of the House of the Golden Stork. At the House of the Golden Pear, now a restaurant, Verner explains that it was once the site of a notorious pub founded in the 14th century. "If you ordered the soup, they served you in a bowl carved from the table itself – and you ate from a spoon attached by a chain," he says with a grin.
I'm pleased to report that service standards are considerably higher at the six establishments I visit on the Eating Prague Food Tour, which takes tourists off the beaten path to taste true Czech cooking.
"People come to Prague for the history and the beer – hardly ever for the food," laments guide Jan Macuch, whose passion is recreating old recipes. But he insists that Czech cuisine, a fusion of Austrian, Hungarian and Bavarian influences, "is the most underestimated in the world."
With every delicious dish, Macuch serves up an equally savoury anecdote.
He explains that a delicately layered gingerbread pastry, sakrajda, means "damn it" – "because you hear lots of swearing when someone is making this."
As we slurp sauerkraut soup in a wood-timbered restaurant in Jindrisska Tower, our guide reveals that it is usually made by men and served as a hangover cure on New Year's Day. As he shifts from foot to foot, Macuch claims that this "typical Czech man's dancing style" is dubbed "stomping the sauerkraut."
At Café Louvre, one of the oldest in Prague, we feast upon svickova, a rich beef soup with bacon, dumplings and sour cream, as Macuch regales us with stories of famous former patrons such as Albert Einstein. "He contemplated how quickly time flies by when you're drinking Czech beer … and the theory of relativity was born," Macuch says with a sly smile.
I'm far too satiated to swallow that tale, but I still go home wanting more. No matter how many times I return, I'll never get my fill of the Czech Republic.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Barcelo Brno Palace, in the heart of Brno, features spacious, well-equipped accommodations in an elegant, mid-19th-century building with a soaring atrium, where you can enjoy live music on select nights; barcelo.com.
Occidental Praha Wilson lies at the southeastern end of St. Wenceslas Square, a terrific central location for exploring Prague. Some rooms offer balconies overlooking the statue of St. Wenceslas; barcelo.com.
For more information visit czechtourism.com.
The writer was a guest of Czech Tourism. It did not review or approve this article.